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One City

Emily’s post this morning reminded me of an article I encountered in Slate a couple of weeks ago about Chinese names and the prevalance of the use of English names in China. The author, Huan Hsu, writes that they have become de rigueur among the business community, even in circumstances where Chinese people interact only with one another.

Hsu attributes the casual attitude towards names in China to a cultural difference I found intriguing (bold is mine):

In the United States, people tend to view names and identities as absolute things–which explains why I agonized over deciding on an English name–but in China, identities are more amorphous. My friend Sophie flits amongst her Chinese name, English name, MSN screen name, nicknames she uses with her friends, and diminutives that her parents call her. “They’re all me,” she says. “A name is just a dai hao.” Dai hao, or code name, can also refer to a stock’s ticker symbol.

This also calls to mind for me an observation Alan Watts makes in The Way of Zen:


In English the differences between objects and actions are
clearly, if not always logically, distinguished. But a great number of Chinese
words do duty for both nouns and verbs–so that one who thinks in Chinese has
little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a
collection of processes rather than things. (pg 5) 

I don’t know if this resistance to solidifying and concretizing experience and identity that seems to be evident in the Chinese language is attributable in an part to Buddhist influence. But I’d be curious to hear from bilingual folks out there: do you find speaking and thinking in Chinese more congruent with the Buddhist understanding of the transience and fluidity of experience?

PS: In his otherwise excellent memoir, Bones of the Master, George Crane lifts Watts’ sentence verbatim without attribution on page 28. Authors take note, I suspect Google Books has only just begun to expose this stuff, so you might want to watch your shila here.
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